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Wednesday October 5th, 2022

Media-persons must be critical thinkers – Media panel

Caption: The panel Left to Right – Arjuna Ranawana, Roel Raymond, Moderator Nalaka Gunewardene and Imran Furkan

ECONOMYNEXT – In an era when almost everyone attempts to disseminate information through a plethora of platforms available, the role of the journalist is all the more important. Even as such a situation could pose a threat to professional media practitioners, it is to them that the public looks to for factual information.

Naturally it calls for media practitioners to be well read and informed of both local and global trends, beliefs, ideologies, market forces, political movements and everything in between. It is the duty of the journalist to consider all of the information out there and offer it to the public in an impartial manner in easily understandable jargon.

In short they must be critical thinkers.

But, it appears that is not the case. At least here in Sri Lanka, it is alleged that current day journalists, mostly amongst the younger generations working in mainstream news rooms, ‘spew out the propaganda they have bought into.’

That was a startling revelation made by Imran Furkan, one of the panelists participating in a discussion on the ‘Future of Journalism, Will Mass Media go extinct?’ The virtual discussion, held on November 24, was organised by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Sri Lanka office. The discussion was moderated by Media Analyst Nalaka Gunawardene, and had on its panel, Chief Editor of Roar Media, Roel Raymond, Commentator on International Affairs, Imran Furkan and Chief Editor of EconomyNext, Arjuna Ranawana.

Elaborating, Furkan explained that while it is not unusual for journalists to lean towards a particular line of thinking, this trend where they have ‘bought into the propaganda from their proprietors,’ has never been seen before. As the discussants agreed, these young journalists seem to be incapable of differentiating between the propaganda that they believe in, partisan views and the truth.

Ranawana agreed, recalling how almost all media outlets reported that a Muslim doctor was rendering Sinhala women infertile. In that case too, there were reporters who had never questioned the allegations made by the women, nor checked with members of the medical profession, if such a thing was even possible.

They believed in the allegations and reported the story in a manner that reinforced those accusations without probing them or checking their veracity, the panellists said.

Such a trend, then, is a serious issue. After all, it is the very news disseminated by such journalists that facilitate informed decision making by the public.

If all that comes out from media outlets is propaganda their employers want to push, how can the media consumer make informed decisions? How would they have the opportunity to weigh the pros and cons of any story? Are editors and news directors aware of the situation, and if so, what steps are they taking to arrest this trend and safeguard the tenets of journalism?

As both Raymond and Ranawana acknowledged, it is a troubling trend, where, while senior journalists may have an inkling of the situation, the more recently initiated to the profession, may not even be aware that they have not been exposed to any other form of journalism, particularly critical investigative stories.

As Raymond observed, for many journalists, it is all about survival and presenting the news as they are expected to, instead of actually investigating the facts. It is a development that has, over the years crept into the profession.

As the panellists pointed out, investigative journalism in Sri Lanka today, is quite different from what it was decades ago. Time was when all of the Sunday Newspapers carried an investigative piece; not so today. However, news comes in bits and pieces through the various social media platforms, be it WhatsApp or Facebook. Reporters follow the pattern and put together a story.

Part of that is citizen journalism, which the panellists acknowledged plays a big role in the present-day media world.

But, rather than simply report those as breaking news, the role of the journalist is to check the facts, obtain as many views on the matter as possible, dig deeper and present a more wholesome picture to the media consumer. It is the responsibility of journalists, Raymond explained to put the stories into context; reduce the reportage and adhere to good journalistic practices.

Not an easy task perhaps, in the Sri Lankan context, where attempts by State authorities to curtail media freedom have taken various forms over the years.

Of late, as the panel noted, there has been some discussion by the State to introduce a Singapore styled regulatory framework which will supposedly deal with fake news and hate speech.

Singapore has passed two laws, the Infocomm Media Development Authority Act (IMDA) in 2016, and the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) in 2018. While IMDA deals with broadcasting and content regulation, POFMA enables the State to issue ‘correction notices’ to those publishing what could be deemed as false or misleading content online.

Recent reports stated that Sri Lanka’s Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella had told a Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Media that the government plans on introducing similar legislation in the country shortly.

Would such legislation then shrink the space for media freedom further?

Furkan is optimistic. In an era where advanced technology provides easy access to information globally, he pointed out that despite the legislation Singapore could not sufficiently control the outcome of the most recent election held there. That is because Singapore is a mature democracy, he explained.

The question though is whether the Sri Lankan audience is as mature? Does it have the capability of sifting the chaff from the wheat? How much of the population has access to a variety of information platforms to independently verify what they see or hear?

Ranawana pointed out that surveys on the media landscape in Sri Lanka indicate, that even today, it is television that has the furthest reach. Radio is next, with only about 20 to 30% reading newspapers.

The biggest divide, he added, is between the digital and non-digital community.

In Sri Lanka, access to the internet and affordability are still constraints faced by many.

There is some hope yet though, as Furkan pointed out, TV audiences are wise to the fact that, even amongst the private media, a few have morphed into propaganda channels of the State. His observation is that people do switch channels owing to this factor, and thus attempt to get a fairer picture of what is being reported.

Media outlets may well enjoy the ‘most favoured by the State’ status; a case in point was the swearing-in of the newly elected President in 2019, where, breaking with tradition a privately owned channel won broadcasting rights, over the State-owned TV channel.

Almost all media owners in the country have other business interests as well and protecting those weigh in largely over ensuring balanced reportage. Mainstream media survives because they are offshoots of the main business enterprises, Furkan said, adding that it comes with a price; political patronage.

The choice left then for media practitioners to buck the trend, according to Raymond and Ranawana, is to cater to niche markets; Ravaya, Anidda, Roar Media, EconomyNext, etc. to name a few; all start-ups. Survival as start-ups though is not easy the panellists agreed unless those managing them have a keen sense of both business and the media. As well, it is time advertising agencies which continue to support traditional media took note of the digital industry and the market it caters to claimed Furkan.

Be it a start-up or one that is cushioned by other business enterprises of the owners, the panellists pointed out that if digital content is to be provided on a subscriber basis, then there must be an agreement by all those in the industry to do so. Some charging a monthly fee, while others don’t, will not serve the purpose.

There are, of course, content providers that are wholly subscriber based in other countries, that Sri Lanka could emulate. As Ranawana said, Malaysiakini is one such, where a socialist-leaning ideologically driven movement morphed into a news outlet fully funded by its subscribers.

Even as the State considers a new regulatory framework to manage content, should media practitioners re-think self-regulation? Though print media subscribes to the Editors Guild Code of Professional Ethics, adhering to its provisions by most is scanty at best. As pointed out at the discussion, owners or Editors may subscribe to the theory, though they may not necessarily adhere to all of its provisions. There have also been several attempts at putting together a code of ethics for the broadcast industry, only to be scuppered at one stage or another. One such attempt had been by Furkan himself, during his time at the Sri Lanka Press Institute. In fact, the Institute’s first such attempt to draft a Code of Ethics for broadcast media was sometime in 2007.

Furkan pointed out that an absence of a regulatory process which provides recourse through the justice system, could lead to society losing trust in the media. Ranawana explained a Canadian system where one of the tasks of the the Radio Television News Directors’ Association is to track self-regulation practices of its members. Such a system ensures that News Directors adhere to the regulations.

What form then, should Sri Lanka adopt? Should it look to the Indonesian style co-regulation that is jointly driven by the State, the industry and the profession? Or perhaps the Indian model, which is quite similar.

And is there an opportunity to move towards public service journalism, something quite different from the concept of State-owned media? As both Furkan and Ranawana explained, agitation from the general public brought about that change in Australia and Canada. Such operations, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, though funded by their respective governments are mandated to remain independent and free of partisan politics.

At a time when Sri Lanka’s media scene is riven by partisan politics, with no apparent separation between the private and state sector, especially amongst broadcasters, public service media may be the answer. If mainstream State media reinvents itself, the private sector too may well be forced to follow suit, regain society’s trust and provide more wholesome news content. (Colombo, November 29, 2020)

Kshama Ranawana

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